Our review of Fallujah‘s latest opus garnered attention recently. While other zines produced reviews that were like an unregulated experiment of the wanton fusion of two separate strains of exaggeration in praise of Unique Leader’s uniquest of leaders, headstrong Kronos did not join the throngs of adoring critics. He argued, clearly and forcefully, that even if the music on The Flesh Prevails is top notch, the mixing and mastering are not. The Flesh Prevails is a brutal and invigorating record, but the brickwall into which listeners careen is almost as brutal as the music itself. The Flesh Prevails is an ear fatiguing DR3, the promo mp3s peaked in the reviewer’s speakers, and the lack of dynamics palpable. Or maybe it’s better to say: the dynamics weren’t palpable.
Thanks to the W0nderz 0f th3 Internetz™ we received a drop-in visit from Zack Ohren. Zack mixed and mastered The Flesh Prevails and he went to bat for Fallujah‘s newest oeuvre. The thrust of his argument was thus: First, Fallujah plays dense, heavy material. It follows, then, that the DR score will be lower than on another kind of material. Second, Fallujah wants the sound to be immense and rarely uses quiet sounds or clean guitars. Instead, the band layers everything for desired effect. The mix follows suit and the master then also needed to push that sound. The band made a choice when offered a number of different options. Finally, Zack argued that the difference between the DR10 master and the DR3 promotional mp3s was not great. His argument, without trying to parse it too much, was that the mastering wasn’t the sole culprit for the sound: the music and the mix were also “at fault” due to conventions of the scene (see: the drums) and processes that happened before the record was mastered.
I do not intend to mediate this discussion or to comment on it further. But I will say this: Upon receiving the DR10 (no loudness) version of The Flesh Prevails I logged into Windows, opened up Foobar2000 and imported “The Night Reveals.” I then did a double-blind ABX (also known around here as The Swanö Challenge). I compared the tracks 14 times and could distinguish them every single time — there was therefore statistically a zero chance I was guessing. The DR10 master was thicker and fuller, with the vocals taking up more space in the mix and a way punchier snare drum. The bass, as well, was more prominent and filled out the sound. And it sounded so damned good.
However, I think that Zack is partially correct in his assessment that the difference between the DR10 and the DR3 master are not so great as one might expect. This might seem counterintuitive to a lot of you, but it makes a lot of sense if you start to think about how modern metal is produced. If you’re engineering a record with a DR3 master in mind, you make a number of choices in order to make sure that when the record loud it doesn’t sound like shit. The product that is produced, then, is perfectly geared to get really loud without clipping audibly—and that’s what The Flesh Prevails is. It’s a loud record, built to be a loud record.
But while this master is not a great example of the loudness war at work in that a DR10 mix will likely not cause the scales to fall from anyone’s eyes, the audible differences in dynamics and the thickness of some of the tastiest parts of the mix (bass! punchier snare! fuller vokills!1) do make me think that this is still a better final product. As I sit and listen to it in my cans, it sounds brutal and it sounds immense. It’s a modern mix, and Fallujah‘s desire to pursue ‘their’ sound succeeds, even when it’s not mashed together.
So why do we need a DR3 master? If the DR10 master is just as brutal, only with a wider spectrum and more dynamics even when the mix is geared for a loud mastering job, I’m not sure what the purpose of an overdriven master is. I’m left hoping, regardless, that the band and their label choose to release the DR10 master for fans that want it. The Flesh Prevails is a brutal tour de force of techy death metal and one of the better records I’ve heard this year. There’s no reason that I should hesitate to buy the CD because of the mastering job. For those interested in getting this mix, you can buy the vinyl (I will)—but that raises the question “why is it only people who buy vinyl who get better mastering jobs?” But I guess that’s a whole other can o’ worms, innit?
A Second/Revised Review
It’s been around a month since I panned Fallujah’s incredibly ambitious The Flesh Prevails on account of a gratuitously loud mastering job, and now that the storm that battered the review’s comments section has passed, the staff at Angry Metal Guy have all agreed that it’s time to take another look at the album. But this time it’s not quite the same album. How so? We have an alternate master, provided for us with consent from Fallujah by Zack Ohren, the man behind the knobs for The Flesh Prevails.
Quickly after my review was published, Zack appeared on the scene to engage us in an excellent discussion on his mastering choices and the reasons that I thought the album sounded like dirt. Despite taking a lot of criticism, he kept up with a lot of questions and always provided reasonable and level responses and was just generally a good guy. So before I get started, I have to tip my hat to him for making this meta-review possible. Zack took pride in his work and took action to resolve this little debacle I’ve created, and were it not for him I probably would have completely written off this album as a casualty of brickwalling.
Zack provided for us a largely-unlimited mix of the album in .wav format, measuring a cool DR10 overall. As he said, the difference isn’t night and day, but it’s impossible to miss just how much better this non-brickwalled, lossless version of the album sounds
Gone is the clipping – entirely2. The intro to “Starlit Path” now produces waves of tranquility rather than disgust; where before the song showed weakness, it now produces strength. The initial crescendo, which was suggested rather than performed in the original version, now appropriately ushers in the release of energy that truly begins the record. “Carved from Stone” is similarly improved. It may not be quite as assaulting as the homogenized-volume version from the original promo material, but the trade-off is between heaviness and listenability. While going through my original review, I usually dreaded hearing certain portions of “Carved from Stone” and “Sapphire” because of just how corroded their most excellent features were. Now, the songs can breath – synthesizers that were once suffocating have become beautifully diaphanous.
The contrast and headroom afforded by this un-mastered master unmistakably change the recording for the better. The Flesh Prevails’ excellent writing and performances deserve no less. The emotion of the album can finally break the surface and make the songs truly beautiful and moving. “Chemical Cave” can now send shivers down my spine, and the dual centerpiece of “The Night Reveals/The Flesh Prevails” is a journey rather than a slog. One can take note of “The Flesh Prevails” echoing the motif that ends “The Night Reveals” before it runs away with the simple, beautiful melody without being distracted by hiss and crackle.
The difference is more than a placebo, and though a few minutes of listening makes it obvious how much more dynamic and organic the album sounds in this incarnation, it’s still worth taking a look at the data- and the data speaks for itself. “Starlit Path” is now a stunningly dynamic DR10 compared to the homogenous DR3 of the original, and a comparison of their waveforms is stunning.
What I want to achieve more than anything with this, apart from being able to make an “Angry Meta-Guy” joke again (do your worst, Steel Druhm), is to make Fallujah and Unique Leader seriously consider releasing a secondary version of The Flesh Prevails. This master, or something like it, is what Fallujah fans deserve. I know that quite a few commenters on my original review have skipped this album because of the mastering and would gladly drop cash for a more dynamic version of the record, and I imagine they’re only a small number of the fans who are disappointed with how The Flesh Prevails sounds. The ball is now firmly in your court, Unique Leader and Fallujah. I respect the band’s choice to have the album sound how they wanted it, but I think it’s worth their time to reconsider that choice, because I’m not alone in thinking that it has seriously hurt what should be an excellent album.
Revised Rating: 4.0/5.0
- You know they’re “vokills” and not “vocals.” ↩
- Though, to be fair, I think it’s important to note that the clipping on the mp3s we were delivered for promotional purposes were likely not on the original master, but instead are a consequence of the conversion process. Is it cool that the original master is so dense that converting it to a lossy file turns it into a mess of audible clipping? No. But, Mr. Ohren did not deliver an audibly clipping master. – AMG ↩